Topics: Labour force figures; Rapid antigen tests; forklift drivers;    




Lisa Wilkinson: And Finance Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now. Minister, you’ve got the lowest unemployment figures in 13 years. Congratulations on those numbers. But the survey period doesn’t include the devastating impact of Omicron. What sort of numbers will you be expecting once that is all taken into account?


Simon Birmingham: I think we should still have lots of cause for optimism across Australia. Australians and our economy have shown enormous resilience throughout COVID-19. Job ads are actually still higher today, around 20 per cent or so higher today than they were this time last year, so we can still see some of that resilience across the economy. In fact, our job numbers have beaten every expectation, every time people have challenged it. The Labor Party said when we went into recession that the test of how we manage the economy was whether or not the employment market came back, whether people were in jobs. Well, the proof is that they are. Of course, Omicron is causing difficulties for many right now, but many of those difficulties are actually labour market shortages, staff shortages because people can’t go to work. And obviously, as we pass the peak over the next few weeks of this current wave, then hopefully we’ll see more Australians able to get back to work and more of that normality return.


Lisa Wilkinson: But minister, apart from the fact that you haven’t answered my question, over the past month we’ve spoken to people from almost every sector that you can think of. Shops are closing, they’re empty, they’re cutting staff. Hospitality is a complete disaster. People, employers are reducing hours. Is that not going to put a serious dent in the economy and those job numbers?


Simon Birmingham: No doubt people are hurting at present, but this is a temporary wave that we’re seeing in terms of Omicron. COVID, we are going to have to continue to manage to work through and to deal with all of its different circumstances. But all of the health experts are pretty much saying we are at or close to the peak across most Australian states. And so as we come off of that peak, along with the continued information and evidence we’ve got along with our very high vaccine and booster rates, around one million booster doses being administered across every three days at present. This is going to provide the ability for Australia to bounce back strongly I’m sure. As we have from every other lockdown, from every other disruption so far, our economy has shown its resilience, as have the businesses and people of Australia.


Carrie Bickmore: Can we talk about schools for a moment? You said you going to split the cost 50-50 with the states to get rapids into schools? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a serious rapid shortage. Can you promise that every child that needs a rapid in a school is even going to be able to get one?


Simon Birmingham: That’s the whole reason why we’ve been working with the states and territories on procuring and making sure that we are targeting rapid antigen tests where they’re needed. We have been providing millions of doses to the aged care sector already to make sure they can test where necessary, along with other vulnerable sectors. We’ve been providing and are providing millions of doses to the states and territories to help them provide rapid antigen tests for free to close contacts in addition to the free testing PCR testing for people who are symptomatic with COVID.


Carrie Bickmore: So will there be enough for the schools?


Simon Birmingham: -and yes, with the hundreds of millions extra on order. That’s what we’re working with the states and territories for to make sure we can provide what they need for the appropriate restarting of school. And the support of testing where it’s necessary in schools where the states and territories decide to apply it and how each of them decide to apply it.


Carrie Bickmore: I mean, we were told early in the week that they’re not due to the middle of Feb schools starting very soon. I know a lot of parents are very nervous about sending their kids back to school with numbers as high as they are. The kids that have been vacc’d have only had one dose. If a kid gets it at school, then it goes through the family, then it can be weeks as it goes through. The family gets people out of work. I mean, you’ve got two daughters yourself. How nervous are you about sending your kids to school?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I want to see my kids back at school. They’ve both had their first dose and I encourage all Australian parents to do that, and if you’ve got a booking that’s in a few weeks time. Have a look and see if you can bring it forward because we’ve seen many more places open up in the last week or two of additional booking slots. There are plenty of doses out there, so follow through and get that done. There will be disruptions that continue due to COVID and Omicron, but shutting our schools down indefinitely is not an option for that. We know that Omicron is around 70 per cent less severe in terms of its health impacts than previous variations of COVID-19. We know that children continue to suffer relatively mild impacts from COVID-19 infections, and we’ve now got vaccinations running through. So we want to see kids back at school. We’re working with the states and territories there on their individual plans to work with their teachers, their workforces and to make sure that we can have as strong a start to the school year as possible and then to keep that going.


Nazeem Hussain: Let’s talk forklifts. Now, we know the PM, he’s not into them now, but the internet has been having a great time making fun of Scott Morrison’s suggestion yesterday that seemed to just come out of nowhere that we lower the age of forklift drivers. I mean, you’ve got two primary school aged daughters. When do you think they’ll be ready to, you know, have that first spin around the warehouse?


Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, it didn’t come out of nowhere. The trucking association made a suggestion and asked for the suggestion to be looked at, and that’s precisely what’s happened. Now, everyone’s agreed, including Scott Morrison and the federal government, that no, 16 is too young. Nine and 10 year old is definitely too young, although I reckon my kids could wreak a bit of havoc with some forklifts if they were given the chance.


Carrie Bickmore: [Laughs] I think which is part of the problem.


Simon Birmingham: But no, it’s not happening and it was an industry association proposal the industry wanted it looked at. It’s been looked at. The answer’s no.


Nazeem Hussain: Tell us the truth. Did the French sell us a bunch of forklift that Scott Morrison can’t offload? [Laughs]


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve just noticed, I’ve just noticed the French have been taking some stances that look very Australian like when it comes to vaccine requirements for visitors and sports stars, and that is a double vax requirement. So I welcome that co-operation with France. More seriously I welcome very much the cooperation with France on Tonga and many other nations who are working with us.


Carrie Bickmore: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. We appreciate your time, minister.


Simon Birmingham: All right, thanks, guys.